THAILAND: Thaksin Verdict Leaves Judiciary’s Stamp on Politics

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (chiang mai, thailand)
  • Inter Press Service

The ceremony outside a small hotel got underway just as the sun approached noon above this Thai northern city ringed by hills. The mix of prayers and pleas on Thursday, Feb. 25, had an offering to the spirits that included nine steamed pigs’ heads, 19 steamed chickens, 19 boiled ducks and 500 eggs.

'We prayed to get the support of the spirits in a country where there is injustice and double standards,' said Petcharawat Wattanapongsirikul, the owner of the 58-room hotel that has become the headquarters in this region for the red shirt-wearing members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), an anti-government protest movement whose political patron is Thaksin.

But by late Friday night, any hope among the UDD here of the sacrificial pigs coming to the rescue of the fugitive Thai politician was erased by the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court in an unprecedented, controversial case in this South-east Asian kingdom.

In a ruling followed widely across the country and read out over seven hours Friday, the judges found Thaksin, who was a billionaire before being elected prime minister, guilty of abusing his power in office from 2001 through mid-2006 by introducing favourable polices that benefited his family-owned telecommunications empire.

The court’s judgement that the Shinawatras had enriched themselves through Thaksin’s abuse of power and blatant conflicts of interest marked the first time that Thai courts have delivered such a verdict against the holder of the highest political office in the country.

Among Thaksin’s faults was his penchant for issuing executive decrees that earned the company he founded, Shin Corp, tax breaks and consequently denied substantial revenue to the state’s coffers. Thaksin’s habit of shaping his company’s interest while serving as the premier through a network of nominees chosen from among his family was a breach of the public officer holders’ law, the court noted.

The premier court’s ruling meant that the government could seize 1.5 billion U.S. dollars of Thaksin’s 2.3 billion dollars in assets that were frozen during Thailand’s last military regime, which came to power in September 2007 after turfing out the twice-elected and popular Thaksin administration.

Still unsure is the fate of the remaining 800 million U.S. dollars, which the court did not seize on account of it having been made before Thaksin was became prime minister. For now, that amount will remain frozen till other cases against Thaksin are resolved, according to the courts.

Thaksin, who is on the run from the law to avoid a two-year jail term for another corruption case, responded with characteristic defiance from his base in exile, currently believed to be Dubai. 'Today I receive no justice,' said Thaksin in a broadcast relayed on a television station run by the UDD. 'May the people judge. Look back at my years of service, not as one scene of a feature film. Look closely and you will see injustice lurking around.'

Thaksin, who wore a black suit, white shirt and black tie -- the garb men normally wear in Thailand when attending a funeral -- used his broadcast to level criticism against the powerful clique of Bangkok-based elite he blames for his latest misfortune. 'Power rests with aristocrats, who constantly push the button. Law enforcement runs real fast with the opposite side,' he said.

Thaksin and the political party he formed, one that he subsequently backed after the 2006 coup, hold this view because they have been at the receiving end of a string of judgements by an emboldened Thai judiciary. He and his supporters call this trend 'double standards' because their political opponents have not been reprimanded as harshly by the courts, they say.

'This verdict confirms the continuing role of the judiciary in resolving political crises in the country,' says Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian at Bangkok's Thammasat University. 'The Supreme Court is being increasingly asked to play an important role, so I was not surprised by the verdict. The judges settled for a compromise rather than take all of Thaksin’s assets.'

Yet he confirmed during an interview with IPS: 'The judiciary is now so powerful it is almost becoming another sovereign power. It is more powerful than the legislative and executive branch of government.'

Thanet once described this trend as a 'judicial revolution,' marking a break from the pliant courts of previous decades that were obedient to the executive branch of government and stayed clear of taking on politically charged cases.

This shift is rooted in an April 2006 speech by the country’s revered monarch, who by Thai law is above politics. At the time, King Bhumibol Adulyadej told the judges of the administrative and supreme courts to do their job to help resolve a political deadlock and growing anti-Thaksin protests on the streets.

Within weeks, the constitutional court annulled the results of a controversial parliamentary election where the party Thaksin led won sufficient seats to create a one-party government.

That verdict was followed by more judgements against Thaksin and his allies, including one a special tribunal appointed by the last Thai junta that disbanded Thaksin’s political party and banned him and 110 other party executives from politics for five years.

In 2008, Thai courts forced Thaksin ally Samak Sundaravej, who led a pro- Thaksin party to victory at a general election, to quit as prime minister for appearing on a cooking show for a paltry stipend, and then forced his successor to resign following another controversial verdict.

The 82-year-old monarch, who has been in hospital since September last year, made two important speeches to groups of judges in recent weeks. He called for justice to be shaped by the spirit of 'righteousness.'

For its part, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is sticking to a message it had stated before Friday’s verdict. 'We have no official reaction to the court’s verdict but we are preparing for demonstrations (by Thaksin’s supporters) that, we hope, will be according to the rule of law,' Panitan Wattanayagaorn, a government spokesman, told IPS.

Such preparations confirm that this country’s growing political divide -- pitting pro-Thaksin groups found among the country’s rural and urban poor against Bangkok’s elite political machine — remains far from being bridged following the highest court’s ruling against Thaksin.

Pro-Thaksin supporters like Tanasak Suwanakul are already preparing for UDD-led anti-government rallies to swamp Bangkok from Mar. 12 onwards.

'The people who will gather in Bangkok are the low people from the north and north-east,' the Chiang Mai native said. 'We are the people who voted for Thaksin and his party because of the good policies he introduced to help the poor. The red shirts want him back.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service